Weed is having a bit of a cultural moment right now. High Maintenance, the web series that turned a delivery service into a peek at Brooklyn yuppie life, just dropped its Vimeo-financed second season; Doug Benson, America’s foremost practitioner of stoner comedy, just released an hour-long special with Netflix called Doug Dynasty (it takes about three seconds before marijuana makes its first appearance, in the form of Benson smoking a bowl); and Broad City is set to return for its second season in January. So if smoking weed, or at least filming people smoking weed, is more popular than ever, how do filmmakers portray it? Is there a weed equivalent of the “booze” Jon Hamm chugs on Mad Men like it’s water — because it is water?
First and foremost: No, that’s not real weed on set. Though there are a few exceptions to that rule, which we’ll get to later.
“We could never really do that on set, because we wouldn’t be able to get the work done,” says Ben Sinclair, co-creator of High Maintenance with his wife, casting director Katja Blichfeld. Stephen Falk, former co-executive producer of Weeds, agreed: “It’s pretty impossible to act and smoke weed at the same time.” Also, Blichfeld noted, it’s illegal.
Shows like Weeds, High Maintenance, and Orange Is the New Black (which Falk, who now runs FX’s You’re the Worst, has also worked on) each found their own workarounds, but unlike alcohol or cigarettes, there’s no industry standard practice for what to smoke on camera instead of the real deal. Where alcohol has non-alcoholic drinks and cigarettes have herbal cigarettes sans nicotine, marijuana has a series of ad hoc solutions that are unique to individual shows. “I have no idea what other people do,” Blichfeld admitted. “We just decided on our own.”
Sinclair and Blichfeld initially had their actors smoking the contents of herbal cigarettes, slicing the props open and packing the herbs into bowls. But prop cigarettes are notoriously disgusting, so Blichfeld and Sinclair did the proper Brooklyn thing and went to their local Ditmas Park apothecary, Sacred Vibes (it has an Etsy shop!). There, they picked up a smokeable herb blend — commonly used for rolling with joints anyway — with ingredients like lavender and catnip, which they’ve been using ever since.
Since the herbal blend doesn’t actually look like weed, though, Blichfeld and Sinclair had to come up with another solution for the dealer’s actual product. So the baggies The Guy doles out to customers are actually cotton balls, doused in glue and rolled around in another herbal blend: dried parsley, cilantro, and rosemary, which gives the “weed” a “stemmy vibe.”
As a higher-budget cable show, Jenji Kohan’s Weeds — the story of a Southern California mom who turns to selling pot — had something High Maintenance doesn’t, for now: a Hollywood art department. While the actors mostly “smoked” herbal cigarettes, the massive quantities of prop weed the show required (think ounces, not eighths) were custom made out of moss and other plants, spray-painted, and bound together. “And they would paint individual hairs — you know how weed has purple hairs or whatever,” Falk said. “They’d get really granular with how detailed it could be.”
Since Weeds also involved a fair amount of growing, not just selling, the art department also had to supply “plants.” Entire grow houses were outfitted with plastic plants — like the fake flower you might use to spruce up your cubicle, except weed, and lots of it. A late-series episode that finds Nancy Botwin’s onetime supplier growing in Humboldt required planting nearly a hundred plastic plants in the ground. The effect is strikingly realistic, except for the fact that actors couldn’t prune plastic: “If you look close when they’re trimming ’em, they’re not really doing much.”
Not every show bothers to fake it, though. Enter Benson, who hosts weekly YouTube series Getting Doug with High. The premise is exactly what it sounds like: guests, usually other comics, hang out with Benson, light up at 4:20, and hang out for the next 45 minutes or so. Guests include usual suspects, from Cheech and Chong to the Broad City girls to Andy Richter, who Benson himself didn’t know was a smoker.
Surprisingly, the law isn’t much of an issue when putting together a show about smoking (real) weed on camera. California has extremely accessible medical marijuana — the state law regulating it is called, no joke, SB420 — and Benson himself has a medical card, as do most of his guests. Plus, the penalty for smoking without a card is just $100, and “[I] don’t really expect anyone from law enforcement to track anyone down and squeeze them for the hundy,” Benson wrote over email.
Still, there are some logistical concerns; all guests are provided with a ride to and from the show, and there’s always an EMT on hand, though “he hasn’t had to do much. Last week he gave Michael Ian Black a lozenge.” Occasionally, comics will decline Benson’s invitation, though not for the expected reasons: “Some people don’t want their employers seeing them smoke on the Internet, or their families. But a lot of comics just don’t want to give up their sense of control while they are on camera. Most comics who smoke do so after they perform, not before or during.”
Even shows that work with fake weed have to worry about how smokers look on camera, though they’re more concerned with seeming authentic than losing control. “I can tell the difference between a cloud of pot smoke and a cloud of non-pot smoke,” Sinclair laughed. “The quality of the pot smoke is much thicker, in my experience. In my opinion, the clouds are never as voluminous as I want them to be.”
Falk’s concerns are bigger picture: “Like anything, dealing with pot on camera is making it look like you know what you’re doing, like it’s habitual… you need to know what the body’s reaction is, and how to ingest it in a believable way.” The second season of Orange Is the New Black, for example, has Poussey, played by Samira Wiley, win a joint-rolling contest in a flashback scene. “I had to call her up early and say, ‘Hey, we don’t have the script yet, but we need you not only to learn German, but also learn how to roll a joint really fast,'” Falk said. “To which I think her response was something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that.’”